New Signing: Will Aimson Analysed

After the excitement of Monday, Ryan Lowe continued to plunder his old club Bury by stealing centre-back Will Aimson and Argyle were linked with striker Dominic Telford shortly after.

Player history

Prior to last season, Aimson’s history wouldn’t have made you look on him as a great signing, even for League Two. Following his move to Hull at the young age of 19, he had two short, unremarkable loan spells at Tamworth and Tranmere.

He then enjoyed a successful one-month loan at Blackpool which was made permanent in January 2016. During his two-and-a-half years with the Tangerines, he never made more than twenty league appearances in a season. Yet, throughout their 2016/17 promotion season, he featured prominently outside of the league proper, racking up half of his 2,714 minutes in the three cup competitions and the play-offs.

While he could not break past Tom Aldred or Clark Robertson into the team when Gary Bowyer lined them up with four at the back, he slotted in alongside his comrades whenever they alternated to three at the back. During their victorious play-off campaign, in which they defeated Luton 6-5 in the semi-finals before triumphing over Exeter at Wembley, he featured on the right hand-side of this back three.

Despite the departure of Aldred, Aimson still failed to crack into the team after their return to League One, and eventually departed on a free-transfer for Bury last summer. Lowe took Aimson’s previous success on the right side of the three and transplanted him straight into his line-up.

At Gigg Lane, Aimson finally had a full league season to be proud of, only interrupted by injury in the final months as he finished with the seventh most minutes in all competitions. With it, came his second promotion from League Two in three years.

Style of play

It’s notoriously hard to judge defenders based on the little evidence available. Highlights packages only tend to show the minutes during the 90 in which opposition teams break through defences, which means that you only ever see them being exposed.

Generally, you either need prior knowledge or to make significant assumptions based on limited data. The only reliable inferences which can be drawn from this kind of analysis are whether defenders are error prone and whether they are good at attacking set pieces. So, let’s start there.

Immediately there are positives. Aimson was involved in more goals from set-pieces than any of his central defensive teammates for Bury. He scored four from set-pieces and assisted a further two, well in excess of Thompson, O’Connell and Stokes. His most notable goal was his late equaliser against Lincoln live on Sky:

As well as that, he also made use of himself as a target man, in this case heading back across goal for the winner against Yeovil on the opening day:

Meanwhile, on the error front, he appears to have made remarkably few. Given the inherent danger in asking League Two defenders to pass out from the back, you won’t be surprised to find out that Bury gave away a fair few goals from sloppy distribution. Adam Thompson was the main culprit in that regard despite his hugely consistent season.

Yet, I can only find two committed by Aimson: a short back header against Northampton and a miscontrol in midfield which led to him giving the ball away against Crawley. Neither resulted in goals, though the Cobblers’ certainly should have done better with their opportunity.

The only other error was a deliberate hand-ball to block a goal-bound effort in their tie against Lincoln, which saw him sent-off as the Imps turned the game around to win 2-1. Given it was only the second red of his career, and only the thirteenth card he has received, it would be fair to suggest that a repeat event is unlikely.

Therefore, despite Bury’s possession based, high-pressure attacking style, Aimson remained relatively error free throughout the season. Instead, he appears to have been one of the most reliable defenders in Bury’s backline, at least based on highlights and comments by trusted sources such as Bury me in Exile.

Though it is far from the from a reliable way of measuring his impact, it is also worth noting that Bury conceded a goal every 84.9 minutes with Aimson in the team, but once every 52.4 minutes without him. This was certainly influenced by factors other than Aimson, but his communication at the back and consistency seems to have made him one of the most important members of their back line.

Indeed, there are a number of examples of Aimson making vital interventions to deny goals. From these superb, goal-saving blocks against MK Dons…

and Exeter…

to the smart positioning required to make crucial interceptions and prevent tap-ins against Grimsby…

and Carlisle.

Finally, we come to Aimson’s skill with the ball. Again, as short highlights packages rarely showcase this, it is always hard to determine. Yet, there are signs to suggest that, while he is no John Stones (debate among yourselves whether or not that is a good thing), he is hardly a Ryan Edwards either.

The best example of his passing was his raking cross-field switch against Exeter in the build up to Jay O’Shea’s opening goal:

Aimson also played this controlled, accurate pass between two midfielders to release Telford for his goal against Dover in the FA Cup:

Finally, there is also this example of composure in the box to beat the defender and create the winning goal against Yeovil (the second time he did that last season).

These highlights do not amount to conclusive evidence that Aimson is a good player in possession, but the fact that he is rarely seen giving the ball away, and is far more often playing a good forward pass, is a distinctly positive sign. If a centre-back is prone to giving the ball away, then you tend to be able to find evidence of it, as was the case with Scott Wootton prior to signing for Argyle.

Tactical role

A distinguishing feature about Aimson’s role in the back three is the different position he takes when his side are in possession. When you compare his starting position to that of his other defensive colleagues, you will notice that while they are set up as traditional centre-backs, Aimson is positioned as a right-back.

Take this period of play at the start of the build-up to Bury’s opening goal against Dover. Here, as described, Aimson is higher up the pitch and right on the touch-line, whereas Stokes and Thompson appear to be more of a centre-back pairing.

Aimson described this style shortly after he was unveiled by Argyle, saying: “With three at the back, when you are on one side of those three, you almost become a full-back. You want to be quite mobile in those positions; you want to become comfortable on the ball – those are two things that I think I’ve got and he has put faith in me to play me in that position.”

There tends to be two positive effects to Aimson’s positioning. First it provides his defensive colleagues another option in possession, in case the passing lanes to the midfield are being blocked. Rather than having to play a short, square pass, they can spread it to the touch-line and force the opposition defence to re-position, opening up passing options.

Second, playing higher up the pitch allows Aimson to act as more of an intermediary between defence and midfield. Instead of having three players in deep, linear, defensive positions, Aimson can be more active and involved in transitioning the ball forward. Take this example against Crawley:

By carrying the ball into a wider, advanced position, he opened up the space to play it down the touch-line into Adams, and thus put Bury into the opposition’s final third.

Yet, the downside to this is that if the ball is given away by his teammates, then he is further out of position and often cannot get back in time to prevent a shot.

Otherwise, Aimson, like Bury’s other defenders last season, spent a lot of time facing down counter attacks against their exposed back-line. The main threat to Lowe’s system is that a strong counter-attacking side, like Mansfield, could quickly attack a back line lacking speed and midfield protection. The defensive trio worked well to minimalise the threats they faced but could become overwhelmed, either by the number of bodies present in the box or by the speed of the opposition players.

Lowe is unlikely to find a remedy to that side of the game, but that is the fun of his system. It focuses on how his team can score more goals than the opposition by finding the net as frequently as possible, rather than by keeping them out of their own.

Based on his last season with Lowe, Aimson seems like an key cog in the 3-1-4-2 machine and that makes him an important signing. Like the arrival of Joe Edwards, he may not seem to be a huge name, but he’ll no doubt make a big impact next season.


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Nick Saunders Smith

Nick leads on Argyle Life’s strategy and administers the website while writing and editing our analysis articles. He also features on the Green & White podcast. View all posts by Nick Saunders Smith